Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
The Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution. It provides for the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the office of President to be reduced from 35 years, the current position, to 21 years. It is a short Bill but an important Bill in the context of the Office of President, as provided for in our Constitution.
Article 12 of the Constitution provides that the President shall: "take precedence over all other persons in the State" and "shall exercise and perform the powers and functions conferred on the President by this Constitution and by law". Given this position in the Constitution, the proposal to reduce the age at which a citizen is eligible for election to the Office of President is a significant proposal. Indeed, proposals to change our Constitution are always significant milestones in the ongoing development of our State.
The genesis of the Bill lies in the first report of the Constitutional Convention. It examined the proposal to reduce the presidential term of office to five years and to align it with local and European elections. It recommended against that change but, in its examination of the issue, the matter of the age at which a citizen could become President arose. This led to the recommendation that the age of candidacy for presidential elections be reduced from 35 years. The Government accepted the recommendation and agreed that a referendum should be held in 2015 on reducing the age from 35 to 21, the same as the minimum age for Dáil and European election candidates - in short, in keeping with the alignment.
As this Bill has emerged from the recommendation of the convention, I think we should again acknowledge the work done by the convention in bringing forward proposals for constitutional change.
The programme for Government provided for the establishment of the convention. It proved itself to be an innovation in democratic deliberation in Ireland. The convention was made up of 66 citizens selected from the electoral register as representative of the composition of Irish society, plus 33 politicians, including a number from the Northern Ireland Assembly, plus an independent chairman. The impact of their work is clear. The two referendums to be held in May are based on recommendations made by the convention. In addition, the convention recommended in its fourth report that an electoral commission should be established. The Government accepted that recommendation and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, recently took the first steps in setting up an independent electoral commission. On 27 January last, he published a consultation paper and earlier this month he met with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to discuss it as part of the pre-legislative process. The committee will now engage in a consultation process and report to him with recommendations.
On the Bill and the specific proposal to lower the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the Office of President, Members of the House will be interested to know that the question was considered previously in reviews of the Constitution undertaken in the 1990s. The members of the 1996 Constitution review group were divided on the issue. Some members saw no sufficient reason to differentiate between eligibility for Dáil membership and for the Presidency. They were prepared to rely on the judgment of the electorate to make a proper choice between candidates. However, others considered that the Presidency called for special qualities which were more likely to accrue and mature over a longer span of years than 21. In the end, the majority of members favoured no change, or only a minor reduction in the age limit.
The all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution took a different view in its 1998 report on the President. It recommended that any citizen who had reached the age of 18 should be regarded as eligible for election to the office of President. The committee believed that there was no logical reason for setting the age at which one becomes eligible to be President at a greater age than that at which one may exercise the right to vote in elections. In making this recommendation, the committee felt that young people should be encouraged to engage in politics. They took the view that any young candidates who succeeded in being nominated would be exceptional and worthy candidates.
In the event, these recommendations were not taken up at the time and the age question effectively lay dormant until the Constitutional Convention considered it again in 2012, 14 years later. A narrow majority of the members of the convention, 50% for and 47% against, found in favour of lowering the age at which a citizen could become eligible for election to the Office of President. While the convention report did not advance any arguments for or against lowering the age threshold, the proposal has since generated debate among political commentators and in the media. I think this commentary, together with the points raised in the Constitution reviews undertaken in the 1990s, are worth reflecting upon.
Arguments advanced in favour of lowering the age threshold from 35 include the consideration that it would generate a greater diversity of potential candidates, thereby providing a greater choice for the electorate. The view is advanced that the electorate can be trusted to judge the suitability of candidates irrespective of their age. It is also argued that capacity to undertake the job need not be age related and, more generally, that it might encourage younger people to engage in politics.
On the other hand, it is argued that there is no public demand for change. It is suggested that lowering the age threshold could weaken the Office of President as considerable experience is seen as desirable in making decisions about such matters as referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court or dissolution of the Dáil. There is also the view that the older age brings a certain gravitas to the office that might be absent among young persons.
International experience gives no real guide but it is interesting to note the wide divergence that exists. The age of eligibility for holding presidential office ranges from 18 in Croatia, Finland and France, for example, to 50 in Italy. Most countries have a minimum age requirement of 35 or 40 years for eligibility for the office of president. The age of Presidents in Ireland, when they first took office, has ranged from 46 to 78 years. The Government, in accepting the convention recommendation to lower the age threshold, agreed that a minimum age of 21 would be appropriate as it matches the minimum age for election to the Dáil and European Parliament. While the amendment to the Constitution to give effect to this may not be very difficult technically, it will only be possible to gauge the impact of the change over time. That is, of course, if the proposed amendment is passed by the people in the forthcoming referendum.
The people, the final arbiters, will have their opportunity to decide in the referendum whether or not they approve of the change. In the event that they do approve and that a person younger than 35 is a candidate at some future election, the people will ultimately decide on the suitability of that person for election to the Office of President.
On referendums generally, I have noted the commentary in the media about other recommendations of the Constitutional Convention and, more particularly, when referendums on these might be progressed. As the House is well aware, this Government has run six referendums since coming into office and there will be a further two referendums in May, both of them arising from recommendations of the convention.
Earlier this year, the Taoiseach indicated in the Dáil that, while he does not envisage any further referendums being held in 2015, this is something for the Government to consider at a later stage. It is the clear Government position that the best approach is for two referendums only to be held in May. This is a reasonable position. While the Government agreed to a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 in 2015, we believe that it would be premature to proceed with the vote in May. This matter was discussed, and the Government's position on it outlined, in the House in February and March when Private Members' Bills on lowering the voting age and voting by citizens resident outside the State were debated.
The debate on the proposed amendments to the Constitution for the May referendums has already begun. Following the publication of the constitutional amendment Bills, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, established on 27 of January 2015 the referendum commissions in respect of both referendum proposals. It is the commission's task to explain the subject matter of the referendums to the electorate, to promote public awareness of the referendums and to encourage the electorate to vote. The commissions' preparatory work is underway.
I will now outline the details of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. Section 2 provides for the standard citation of constitutional amendment Bills. Part 1 of the Schedule to the Bill provides for the substitution of the Irish text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years is eligible for election to the Office of President.
Part 2 of the Schedule to the Bill provides for the substitution of the English text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years will be eligible for election to the office of President. The opportunity is being taken here to correct a possible conflict between the Irish and English texts of Article 12.4.1°, as they currently stand. While the Irish text requires a candidate to have completed 35 years of age, the English text requires a candidate to have reached the 35th year, which would be on their 34th birthday. In the amendment to the Constitution now proposed, both the Irish and English texts of the Bill are aligned. Attention was drawn to this possible conflict between the Irish and English texts in the Constitution review reports undertaken in the 1990s that I mentioned. The all-party Oireachtas committee noted that the issue had been raised by the eminent constitutional lawyer Mr. John Kelly, a former Member of this House, in his book The Irish Constitution.
This is a short but important Bill and I commend it to the House. Our democratic processes and our full participation in them are important for all of us so I encourage people to vote in order to have their say in the outcome of the referendum. I commend the Bill to the House.